When Ryan Pace took the podium this past January for the first time as general manager of the Chicago Bears, he outlined the types of players he wants in the Windy City.
His first criteria, the very first thing he said about future roster personnel, was this:
“There will be a major emphasis on character.”
Today, the Bears signed Ray McDonald, who last year was accused of domestic violence against his then-girlfriend, who was pregnant at the time, and then, roughly seven months later, sexual assault.
McDonald was not officially charged in either incident, although the rape investigation is still ongoing.
The 49ers cut McDonald hours after news of the second incident was made public. The team that drafted him and paid him handsomely for eight straight seasons felt he was no longer worth the investment, citing “a pattern of poor decision-making.”
Obviously, that didn’t deter the Bears, who just recently shipped Brandon Marshall, who has a well-documented history of domestic violence, to the New York Jets. With Marshall, the Bears took in a troubled player who proceeded to divide the locker room and repeatedly embarrass the team off the field.
Not surprisingly, Pace and head coach John Fox spent little time ridding the team of a major distraction, only to replace him with a potentially larger distraction in McDonald.
When asked today at the annual NFL owner’s meetings about his decision to acquire a player who is still a suspect in a rape case, Pace cited McDonald’s desire to come to Chicago. He said McDonald paid for his own flight to the Windy City and sat down with chairman George McCaskey.
Pace also made a phone call to McDonald’s parents who, surprisingly, vouched for him. Pace said input from defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and secondary coach Ed Donatell, who both coached McDonald for four years in San Francisco, also weighed into the decision.
Finally, Pace said the approval of owner Virginia McCaskey sealed the deal.
So because he paid for his own flight and his parents and former coaches said good things about him, he’s worth the risk?
But with that, Pace’s margin for error immediately becomes razor thin, despite being on the job just a few months.
If you publicly state that character is your first priority, then turn around and sign McDonald less than three weeks into your first season as GM, then you’re setting yourself up for some serious, long-standing backlash.
Very few teams would be willing to take on a risk like McDonald, and the Bears are now one of them. They are a team that puts winning above all else, no matter what they say publicly.
Only time will tell if McDonald is a risk worth taking. If his legal situation worsens or he’s suspended, a dark cloud will hang over the Bears in the same way it did the 49ers last year. And if he drags the team down with him as Marshall did last year, Pace, like Emery, won’t be long for Chicago.
The investment in McDonald is minimal. The club signed him to a one-year “prove it” deal and if it doesn’t work out, they can cut him without financial repercussions.
He’s a quality 3-4 defensive end who has been a starter in Fangio’s system for four years. From a football perspective, he’s a great pickup.
Yet the league is still conducting its own investigation as to whether McDonald violated the NFL’s new, beefed-up personal conduct policy, and could easily suspend him this year.
With that much inherent risk, the Bears would never have signed McDonald if they didn't feel he could help them win. And winning, above all else, is the bottom line for Pace and Fox.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fifth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.